IN THE MEDIA

Israel-Hamas ceasefire: The moral and operational dilemmas behind the hostage release deal

Nov 23, 2023 | Ran Porat

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Lens – Monash University

 

Forty-five days after the 7 October murderous “Black Saturday” attack by Hamas terrorists on Israelis living near Gaza – Israel’s 9/11 moment – a deal has now been struck between the sides, mediated by Qatar.

Starting on 23 November, Hamas will be freeing 50 Israelis (30 children, and 12 mothers and other women) held in Gaza. An additional 30 may be released soon after.

In exchange, Israel will “pause” its intense military campaign against Hamas in Gaza for four to five days, and release from Israeli jails about 150 Palestinian women and minors (this number may increase if more Israelis are freed) – a release ratio of three Palestinians per one Israeli kidnapped. No Palestinians convicted of murder will be released, except in specially-approved cases.

In addition, for the first time since the attack, the International Red Cross will finally be given access to other abductees in Hamas hands, including soldiers, and will be able to provide them with assistance and medication.

This deal is quite complex and has many implications.

 

How is Hamas expected to make use of the pause in fighting?

First, there’s the ongoing fierce campaign by the Israeli army (IDF) against Hamas in Gaza. Israel has declared an intention to dismantle Hamas in response to the 7 October massacre, in which the organisation’s terrorists, together with other Palestinians from Gaza, invaded numerous towns in southern Israel, slaughtered 1200 mostly civilian Israelis, and kidnapped 240 men, women and children (including babies, and many foreign nationals) – all war crimes of the worst kind.

Initially considered by Hamas and its supporters as a major victory, it immediately became clear that the fierce and unprecedented Israeli response could be Hamas’ worst nightmare.

A massive number of Israeli troops entered the strip days after the massacre and have been systematically rooting out Hamas terrorists from their hiding places – especially the 500km-long networks of underground tunnels (aka “The Metro”) that Hamas has constructed under civilian homes, hospitals, schools, and even kindergartens in the strip.

The fighting has taken a huge toll in human lives – close to 80 Israeli soldiers and, according to Hamas officials, a staggering 13,000 Palestinians were reportedly killed. However, these figures don’t even attempt to differentiate between combatants and civilians, and there are estimates that up to 50% of the Palestinian casualties are Hamas terrorists.

Huge parts of the Gaza strip have turned into rubble because of relentless bombings by Israel. Following Israel’s warnings, aimed at protecting the lives of civilians, more than a million Palestinians have left their homes in the northern part of the strip and now face dire conditions, largely in tents and temporary accommodation, in Gaza’s south.

 

It is clearly in Hamas’ interest to prolong the ceasefire as long as possible, giving the group time to recover and regroup.

Winter is about to begin, and clean water, food and medical supply are dependent on humanitarian aid allowed in by Israel. There’s a real danger of disease outbreaks. Many Gazans are trying to leave into Egypt – but Egyptian authorities are allowing only foreign citizens and some of those with urgent medical needs in.

The ceasefire deal includes an Israeli agreement to dramatically increase daily humanitarian aid, and provisions for the entry of fuel, urgently needed to keep power flowing to essential facilities (such as sewage factories, desalination plants, and hospitals).

The challenge, from an Israeli point of view, would be to effectively monitor the high number of trucks carrying supplies to Gaza daily to ensure these vehicles are not abused for smuggling weapons, and that fuel isn’t diverted to bolster Hamas’ military capabilities.

It is clearly in Hamas’ interest to prolong the ceasefire as long as possible, giving the group time to recover and regroup.

Hamas commanders are expected to take advantage of the time-out in fighting to try to tactically improve their positions on the ground, moving forces and trying to re-arm.

Many may possibly also seek to escape, for example, from the north into the southern and currently safer part of the Gaza strip. This is part of the reason why Hamas insisted on a gradual release of only 12-13 of the hostages each day, and the provision in the deal to potentially extend it in exchange for additional hostages.

The tens of thousands of Israeli troops currently inside the strip and encircling all key strategic locations within the northern part of Gaza (such as the Jabalia refugee camp and Gaza City), will stay put during the ceasefire. This could leave them exposed to attacks from Hamas and other groups, and it’s unclear how strongly they may react to such an attack. Any such violence could end the ceasefire and unravel the hostage deal.

A further difficulty is the location of the Israelis kidnapped, and who’s holding them. Hamas doesn’t have all 240 Israelis and foreign nationals abducted in its possession.

Many of the thousands of Palestinians who stormed Israeli towns and a few army bases outside Gaza on 7 October were not Hamas operatives – some were members of the Iran-backed terrorist organisation Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), while others were “ordinary” civilians (all men).

All of them enthusiastically participated in the orgy of death and torture on that day, and some took back with them into Gaza an unknown number of Israelis as hostages. These hostages are now being held by both PIJ and private individuals, who hope to “benefit” from agreeing to their release.

In light of this, Hamas said it will use the ceasefire days to seek to locate more of the Israeli hostages in Gaza. Transferring additional hostages to Hamas’ possession may enable more deals, possibly even during the upcoming ceasefire, thus prolonging it.

In order to protect Hamas people who will allegedly be searching for additional hostages, the terrorist group has demanded Israel stop all drone surveillance over southern Gaza for six hours per day. Israel reluctantly agreed, yet Israeli security officials noted that the army will not “go blind”, and the IDF has other means to closely monitor the movement of people in Gaza, even without drones in the sky.

 

Israel’s moral and operational dilemmas

Deliberating on whether or not to accept the deal, the Israeli government had to weigh up some serious operational and moral dilemmas.

The current agreement could become a blueprint for future deals. Israeli society is known for its heightened sensitivity to the loss of lives, and has a history of agreeing to pay almost any cost for agreements that free hostages.

For example, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also headed the government in 2011 when Israel agreed to release 1027 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 terrorists convicted of the most serious crimes, in exchange for the return of one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas in 2006.

One of those released in that exchange was Yahya Sinwar, who’s the current leader of Hamas in Gaza and is believed to be the person most directly responsible for planning and initiating the heinous war crimes of 7 October.

The IDF will also face a major operational challenge during the ceasefire. While stopping its offensive, it will still be tasked with protecting soldiers inside Gaza, monitoring and preventing ceasefire violations, such as sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel, or even infiltration attempts. Returning to the offensive against Hamas at the end of the ceasefire will also require planning and preparation.

Above all, this ceasefire brings to the fore the major tension between the war’s two main stated objectives from the Israeli point of view.

On the one hand, dismantling Hamas as an operational organisation and a threat to Israel requires aggressively attacking in Gaza using the IDF’s full military prowess.

On the other hand, as this deal has proven, to achieve the goal of freeing the Israelis in captivity in Gaza – a goal viewed as “sacred” across virtually all of Israeli society – the army may have to stop in its tracks.

The deal also cynically and tragically leaves Hamas with the valuable “card” of soldier (and men) hostages, causing a morally painful differentiation between the kidnapped.

And there’s the question of the diplomatic ticking clock. What if international pressure emerges to make the temporary ceasefire into a permanent one – most notably from the US?

President Joe Biden has been a staunch supporter of Israel so far, promptly supplying vital ammunition, weapons and financial aid to Israel.

Just as important, the US has been providing Israel with a diplomatic umbrella, rejecting demands for an immediate ceasefire coming from the UN and other corners for weeks.

If Washington changes its mind and decides that the release of the hostages justifies an end to the fighting, this could potentially signal a rapid end to Israel’s current military efforts.

 

The threat from the north

Another complication is that across the northern border of Israel, another menace is lurking. The Iranian terrorist proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has been attacking Israeli positions and towns along the border daily for weeks.

It’s armed with 150,000 missiles of all types that can hit almost any place in Israel. Its elite Redwan force has been training for years to infiltrate Israel to conquer territory, kill and kidnap Israelis – Hamas copied its tactics on 7 October directly from Hezbollah’s military plans and exercises.

Will Hezbollah join the ceasefire? Or will the weight of the war now shift towards Lebanon (and maybe also Syria, which has also been the source of cross-border attacks)?

Israel has repeatedly clarified via various channels that it doesn’t want a conflict with Hezbollah now. These messages are backed by increased US army presence in the region, including two US Navy carrier groups.

The Americans themselves are busy repelling and responding to attacks on its bases in the Middle East by various Iranian proxies, as well as intercepting missiles and drones fired at Israel by Yemen’s Houthis, Teheran’s proxy in that country.

The US may also now be forced to assist in stopping the Houthis’ maritime piracy, after they hijacked a cargo ship in the Red Sea, part-owned by an Israeli businessman (it was leased by Japanese concerns and carried no Israelis on board).

 

Dark clouds hover over the current conflict

The war in Gaza will end at some point and, unless the US reverses its current support for Israel’s efforts, there seems little doubt that Hamas will be completely defeated, given its military and moral inferiority against Israel’s powerful army, as well as international support (including, privately, from many Arab leaders) for eliminating the ISIS-like Islamist terror group.

However, who will govern the Gaza strip after Hamas is gone?

The Americans have expressed their wish that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, will take over Gaza.

But the PA is corrupt and weak, losing control even of sections of the West Bank, and many in Israel don’t consider it an acceptable option, given its own support of “armed struggle” and terror. Moreover, the PA may face an ugly internal civil war once its 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas leaves the stage.

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